Modern Numerology

It’s all about numbers.

In the dark, arcane worlds of numerology, numbers are like zodiac signs, carrying genders, qualities, fortunes and much more.  For instance, in what you might call “standard” numerology, the number six is female, a nurturing number representing charm and grace.

But I used the plural “worlds of numerology,” for there are many schools of numerology, each with rich traditions of meanings, quite often contradictory.  For instance, for the mathematically inclined mystic, six is also the first “perfect” number: It is the sum of its divisors (1 + 2 + 3 = 6) and their product (1 * 2 * 3 = 6).  And the mystical just love 666, as it is not only the triplet of the “perfect” six, but it is even more bizarrely equal to the 6th power of six’s divisors (16 + 26 + 36 = 666).

Perfection, indeed!

On the other hand, for the religiously inclined, 666 is decidedly imperfect, being taken to be the Number of the Beast from Revelations.

There are a lot of well-known systems, such as the Tarot, the Kabbalah, and the I-Ching.  But many organizations have their own brands of numerology and their own special meanings. The Christian Churches, the Masons, the Shriners, the Mormons, and Lord knows who else have always had a fascination with certain numbers and believe they reveal hidden things about the world.

For instance, under Hebrew numerology, the Gematria, six is the number of Man, since God created Man on the Sixth Day and the Sixth Commandment is the one forbidding the killing of Man.  Hence the Star of David has six points, etc.  One can go on and on about all this, and a great many do.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about.

Instead, let’s talk about guerrilla warfare.

Practically the first axiom of guerrilla warfare is that you cannot militarily defeat a well-led guerrilla force that has the support of the population.  The reason is that such a force can choose to fight when its victory is assured.  When the odds are bad, it simply fades back into the population and waits for a better day.

Chairman Mao said that the guerrilla force is like fish swimming in water.  The people are the water.  Hence the only way to defeat a guerrilla force is to drain away the water.  Separate the people from the guerrillas and they just flop around until they die from lack of oxygen.

In every case in the twentieth century where a guerrilla army was defeated, such as in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Peru, the government has managed to change itself to offer a more attractive alternative to the people.  In places where the guerrillas have won, such as China and Vietnam, or where they appear to be winning, such as Lebanon with Hezbollah and Palestine with Hamas, weak and corrupt governments failed to offer an alternative that is attractive enough to woo the people away.

So, just to underline the lesson, the first axiom of fighting guerrilla warfare is that you cannot militarily defeat a well-led guerrilla force that has the support of the population.  All the military can do is fight a holding action while a viable political alternative is built.

America’s favorite lesson in how not to fight a guerrilla war is Vietnam.  While we poured money, equipment, and troops into South Vietnam, we allowed their government to degrade into a corrupt, distorted mirror image of a western-style government, alienated from its own people and culture and fatally weak as well.  But they had become so talented at parroting the language of western democracy that we were completely unable to see that they offered no real alternative to the Vietnamese people.

What defeated us in Vietnam was a fatal combination of two factors: First, it was our hubris about the power of our technology and our faith that our own system was so good and effective that it could be applied like a rubber stamp to any other culture and any other situation.

Second, and perhaps as a result of the first, we were so completely ignorant of the culture and traditions of the people we were both fighting and assisting that we couldn’t understand why the alien model we offered them was so profoundly unattractive to them.

There is a famous story of how one of our soldiers, Colonel Harry Summers, had an encounter with a senior Vietnamese officer after it was all over.  Summers simply couldn’t resist defending the American military conduct in Vietnam.  “You know,” he said, “You never defeated us in the field.”  The Vietnamese officer considered for a second and said, “That may be true.  But it is also irrelevant.”

Clearly, we learned our lesson from Vietnam.  Never again would we go into a war so convinced of our own power and righteousness that we wouldn’t even both to try to see the conflict through the eyes of the local population.  We have learned the lesson that it takes a profound understanding of a people’s culture to construct a viable alternative to the people we are fighting.  And we have learned that it is not enough to create an alternative that is attractive to us.  That we have to create one that reflects the needs and desires of the populace, even if it contains elements that are profoundly alien to us.

I know it is tempting to suspect, when we learn from the Iraq Study Group Report that, of the 1000 employees of the American embassy in Iraq, a grand total of six are fluent in Arabic, that we are repeating our same old mistakes.

Or when we learn that, five years after 9/11, of the 26,500 FBI employees, a grand total of six are able to read and speak Arabic above the rudimentary level, it would be profoundly easy to think that our government is chauvinistic and just doesn’t understand the problem of fighting terror.  Perhaps one might even be tempted to think that those inside the Beltway are more involved in fighting turf battles than terrorism.

But clearly, it would be an error to give into such wrongheaded temptations.  Our leaders are surely much more cosmopolitan and competent that they were in the bad old days of the twentieth century.

Still, one has to ask, if that is the case, why did these two vital pools of employees reach the low number of six and simply stop?


Somewhere in our bureaucracy there is obviously a dedicated, devout, and knowledgeable cadre of numerologists who understand that six is the perfect number for our salvation and that any more would be risking the gravest mystical consequences.

It is truly heartwarming to know that we are not only being led to victory in the earthly war on terror but protected from mystical disasters as well.

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